For as long as I can remember I’ve been drawn to art and fashion as a means of self-expression. When I was four my uncle called me “The Big Shoe Lady” because I was always dressing up in my mom’s clothes and heels and scooting around our house. My mom was a hairstylist and had built a home salon so she could raise my brother and I. I remember watching her cut, color and style her clients hair. It was amazing to witness how much she helped brighten their day, not just by transforming their look, but also by creating a space for them to express themselves, to be seen and to be heard. Not only did they trust her with their hair, they also felt safe enough to share some of their most vulnerable stories and experiences. After every appointment, her clients would walk out with a newfound self-esteem and fierceness because it was like she was giving them both a makeover and therapy session at once. Seeing her ability to help uplift their spirit and self confidence inspired me to want to have that kind of impact too. Between her creativity, compassion and loving heart, I had big shoes to fill.
When I was 14 I started my first job at a women’s clothing boutique. By this age I was making art out of anything and everything I could. Painting, drawing, photography, sewing and altering clothes. I loved curating the shop and helping customers pick out outfits that made them feel confident and beautiful. While I really enjoyed all of the creative aspects of the job, the dressing room was also a very vulnerable place, and I witnessed the immense pressure that women of all ages, shapes, sizes and colors face to conform to society’s beauty standards. Although it was my job to sell clothes, I put my heart into finding them the best outfit possible to help them transform their insecurities and fear into confidence. This is where my passion for supporting women started to sprout. I had watched my mom uplift women through her craft and I wanted to use my art as a means of empowering people as well.
I fell in love with the therapeutic process of designing and styling people and the experience of evoking emotion and started collaborating with friends on different projects. My senior year of high school I put together a mixed media portfolio and dreamt of going to an art college, but all of the schools that I wanted to attend were not financially feasible. My parents wanted me to study business or something more practical than art, but I decided to apply for a full scholarship competition to study design and visual communications in San Francisco instead, and won! The submission was a short fashion film that I directed and styled and my friend Sara helped shoot and edit. We became close friends during this time and decided to move up to San Francisco together when I started school. After living in the city for a couple of years, Sara and I were constantly inspired by the multifaceted women we met everywhere we went. They were artists, doctors, mothers, chefs, healers, business owners, lawyers, community leaders and so much more. These ladies were unapologetically themselves and designing their lives on their own terms. After getting to know them, we saw that our fears and obstacles were so similar. Through our conversations, we were able to learn different ways to overcome them. We realized how empowering it is to hear stories from people that you can relate to, and we wondered why so many women’s experiences and perspectives were missing from mainstream media.
Like many of us young girls seeking advice and inspiration, I grew up looking to television, movies and magazines to find role models, but rarely did I find any that I could relate to outside of the women I knew personally. The more we started to talk about this, the more we realized that others felt this way too. Movies play a huge role in shaping our culture, and nearly every woman we knew felt frustrated by the constant bombardment of the same stereotypical roles, photoshopped images and unrealistic beauty standards. Although neither of us had ever made a feature-length film before, Sara and I decided to stop complaining about the lack of representation and to start doing something about it. We made a pact to set our fears aside and travel from coast to coast interviewing other women who were doing the same. I dropped out of school, we sold all of our belongings at a yard sale party, and had a successful crowdfunding campaign to fund the project.
We hit the road in a mini school bus that was serendipitously donated to us by a stranger with a heart of gold named Chirp. Driven by our desire to see a broader spectrum of female role models in the media, we set out to talk to inspiring women from all walks of life about their paths to self-discovery.
At the beginning of our journey, we met an incredible painter named Michelle Robinson who transformed #TheGoddessBus with her artwork into a goddess billboard on wheels. As we made our way across the country, our beautifully painted bus attracted people everywhere we went. This was almost always a blessing, but sometimes a curse (like when we were looking for an incognito spot to park overnight). We met women to film at coffee shops, at rest stops, and even through Twitter while driving on the highway
It only took a couple of weeks being on the road to realize that living out of a bus during the hot summer while making a movie was going to be a lot more challenging than we had anticipated. The vehicle itself had about 6 x 10 feet of living space and none of the amenities we had grown accustomed to in our daily lives. All we had was our camera equipment, a bed, two drawers for our clothes, a cabinet to hold dry food, and a cutting board that doubled as a desk.
It was basically like camping in a hot tin box. Not to mention, we went from taking public transportation everyday to learning how to fuel and operate a veggie oil powered school bus practically overnight. All while filming and editing interviews, and finding a new place to park in every city. Each day brought new challenges, but we kept driving with the knowing in our hearts that our intuitions would guide the way.
We interviewed artists, mothers, healers, businesswomen and scholars about the life-changing experiences that shaped them to become who they are today. The filming process was unique, because we were just a team of two on the road. No staging, lighting, make-up artist, sound engineer or fancy crew. It was less like a movie set and more like a conversation between girlfriends because we were sharing our story with them too.
Connecting with women across the country opened our eyes to so many new possibilities. As we got to know each of them, we discovered how similar many our goals and struggles were. We realized that although our individual paths look so different from the outside, there are threads that connect us all. I think I shed tears during almost every interview because I was just so touched by how open the women were with us after just meeting. We laughed together, we cried together, and it got really real.
By the end of the trip we traveled 10,000 miles, interviewed over 100 women and filmed 300 hours of footage to create the feature documentary. We then spent 4 years editing and working with a team of artists and animators from around the world to help illustrate women’s stories.
Since the film’s completion in 2017, The Goddess Project has screened in over 300 cities around the world, inspiring conversations about empathy, sisterhood, and vulnerability in all kinds of venues from theaters, yoga studios, universities, and festivals to conferences, women’s shelters, prisons and more.
Our paths are a series of moments and choices, and it is incredible to look back and see what has led me here today. I never imagined I’d become a filmmaker, but as life unfolds I’ve spent the past 6 years learning how to produce, direct, market and distribute a social impact documentary project from scratch. To say I was naive getting into this would be an understatement. I never realized that making a film could be as difficult or rewarding as it has been, but I know that none of this would have been possible if we didn’t commit to being fiercely vulnerable in pursuit of this vision. Being open and honest is the greatest gift you can give to yourself and others. Vulnerability is strength, and the more transparent we can be, the more we can deeply connect with everyone around us and create a more harmonious world.
Holli Rae is an artist and filmmaker living in LA.
Her documentary The Goddess Project, is available to stream now.